We’d do anything for our kids, wouldn’t we? Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’) understands that, he gets it. But with this bruising, powerful drama he also asks the question: what if the broken social, political and judicial culture around you literally allowed you to do anything for them, without any regard for right or wrong?
The anti-hero of this intense, talky, busy and completely compelling morality play is Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), and he’s far from an obvious villain, if indeed he’s a villain at all. Romeo is a well-regarded local doctor in a Transylvanian town who is determined that his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) does well in her exams so that she can study in the ‘more civilised’ UK.
Romeo has clearly given up on the idea of Romania being part of the ‘better world’ he dreams of, and he’s quietly complicit in various local corruptions without always realising it. He’s also having an affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a recent patient 15 years younger than him who has a young son. When his daughter is attacked on the eve of her exams, he’s ready to act to win her the grades she needs.
Mungiu doesn’t explicitly judge Romeo; he simply presents this brief, exposing and perhaps defining chapter of his life in captivating detail. He also makes clear that, although Romeo is a man of considerable influence, able to pull strings here and there, emotionally he’s very much on the edge and liable to fall apart any second. How Mungiu explores more deeply what all this means is via a mystery element to his story. Who threw a rock at Romeo’s apartment window? Who damaged his windscreen wipers? Who smashes his car window? And are these aggressions in any way linked to the attack – an attempted rape – on Romeo’s daughter?
Cramming an enormous amount of story into just over two hours, with a time period of just a few days, ‘Graduation’ combines the always-on-the-move energy of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers with an oblique mystery familiar from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ and, especially, his ‘Hidden’. Both of those films were partly about the morality we do or don’t pass down to our kids, and that’s the abiding theme here. It’s not a despairing movie – Mungiu even suggests that a new generation might put things right – but it’s a brutally honest one.